Even when it launched back in 2014, Expendables 3 felt like a fossil. Its retro ‘men on a mission’ was barged out of the way by Fast & Furious, which was bigger, cooler, and had just snagged its own Jason Statham in a seventh installment. Mission: Impossible, too, was in its transition from Ghost Protocol to Rogue Nation, and was reclaiming the action-caper crown. And all Expendables 3 could do was limp in with a Chuck Norris cameo and jokes about getting too old for this shit.
If it was a fossil in 2014, it’s dust now. Mission: Impossible and Fast & Furious have had their apex and are now reaching the point where questions are being raised about their sustainability. That might sound like an opportunity for the Expendables, but we don’t think it is: it feels like we’re in a big budget action-movie crisis. The biggest movies of the year feature a toy and a video game character. This might be the worst time for Sly and Jason to roll into town.
Still, you can see how Sylvester Stallone managed to get the funding for this fourth installment. Like ballast on a cargo plane, pretty much everything has been jettisoned. This is Poundland Expendables. Gone are the celebrity cameos, and so have the big-name signings. Megan Fox is about the closest to a household name among the new faces, while Dolph Lundgren is the most recognisable remaining Expendable who isn’t Stallone or Statham. In the time period between Expendables 1 and 2, I remember discussing with mates about which action movie star should be in the next Expendables movie; that conversation feels a bit silly now.
The tightening of the belts continues. Expend4bles (ugh, we hate that title with a passion) pulls a Die Hard and takes place almost entirely in one location. This isn’t the globe-trotting mega-franchise that it once was. Instead, we get a movie that’s frantically reusing the ocean trawler set that it’s bought and paid for. The cost-cutting is so transparent that you can see the VHS tape of Under Siege beneath.
The plot feels like it’s been chopped up by Danny Trejo’s machete too. Barney (Sylvester Stallone) taps up Christmas (Jason Statham) for a mission to Libya. The merc team has been drafted by the US government (led by Andy Garcia) to steal some nuclear warheads before the mysterious ‘Ocelot’ gets hold of them. Barney’s got previous with Ocelot: several decades ago, Ocelot wiped out his team, leaving him as the only survivor. There are conspiracy theories that he is Ocelot, so Barney’s got a double-bill of retribution planned. He wants to clear his name and put a bullet into Ocelot’s skull.
Stealing warheads from Libya is so very, very Expendables. It feels like the objective from a second-tier Schwarzenegger movie from the ‘80s. We half-expected a CGI Colonel Gaddafi to make an appearance. But it creates a snug scenario for Expendables to slip into. Everything is immediately familiar.
A decent script is something that Expendables has never particularly cared for, but at least it’s coherent in the other movies. In Expend4bles, it’s bad enough to make us wince, as we get gut-punched by the stars of the movie in an orderly queue. It goes from bad in the opening sections (Barney and Christmas seem to be doing a spot of improv in an early scene with Megan Fox’s Gina, and we understood about fifty percent of what was being said) to being so bad that they will forever be etched on our memory. We don’t know which one was worse: a long winded explanation of a ‘golden shower’, or a scene featuring a social media influencer that was clearly written by someone who found themselves on Youtube once and got irrationally angry. Ugh, I’m wincing and cringing simultaneously as I remember them.
Expend4bles spends much of its time with banter between the team members. It’s always been a part of the series, but you get the sense that Fast & Furious and its ‘family’ has forced Stallone to put more emphasis on it. What makes Fast & Furious barely passable and this a grimacing mimicry is that no one likes each other. It’s all mean-spirited and snarky, as new members clash with old members. Only Sly and Jason feel like they’ve got an ounce of appreciation for each other, and that’s including people in the team who are in a relationship with each other.
But Expend4bles is about the action, and there’s arthritis in the joints. I have two major gripes with the explosions and gunfights here: the first is that it’s slathered in cheap CGI, the second is that there’s nothing here – save for a bike sequence on the liner – that I haven’t seen done before with a Bourne, Bond, Hunt or whomever else.
The CGI doesn’t make sense to me. Expendables has always been a franchise that felt focused on real stunts. Here, virtually everything has been tainted by greenscreen. Characters in Libya, on the freighter, or in any location that isn’t an interior, are handled against a poorly painted backdrop. None of it is done well, so the whole shebang has the faint whiff of panto. We expected to pull back and see Chuck Norris manning the winch as the background rotated round. The same goes for the action. Nothing looks remotely real, and the stakes fall apart as a result.
We suppose it has to do with budget. Cheap CGI may well cost less than shipping Sly to Libya. But the lackadaisical action sequences are inexcusable. Even when Expendables has been at its worst, there’s always been something to pump the fists and say ‘cool’. In Expend4bles, Tupperware is being opened and action sequences are being reheated. Close your eyes and you can imagine it: people leaning out of cars and firing, people leaning round the sides of shipping containers and firing, Jason Statham grabbing gun muzzles and slamming people into the floor. Repeat ad nauseum and you have Expend4bles, which may well have been put together from Expendables 1-3 deleted scenes.
So, what can action-starved Expendables fans actually enjoy about the movie? Jason Statham is clearly an immortal, as he’s not aged a day since Snatch and is still as watchable as ever. Which is lucky, as it’s pretty much the Jason Statham Show. We suppose you could put the whole thing on in the background and it will feel vaguely like you’ve reversed to the late ‘80s. That might be low-rent time-travel that you can get behind.
But, mostly, Expend4bles feels like it was made with a gun to Sly’s head. It’s not filled with joy and silliness: it’s filled with compromises and the same-old, same-old. If you told us that he was contractually obligated to make this Expendables movie on the budget of an Eastenders episode, well, we’d believe you.